Richard Swann enjoyed a 33-year career in the Royal Canadian Navy that saw him sail the world’s oceans, track submarines, train personnel and board numerous ships in the Persian Gulf.
Swann, who retired in 2021 as Chief Petty Officer Second Class, worked in several roles as a sailor, including anti-submarine warfare (ASW) during and after the Cold War.
“I hunted submarines all over the world,” said Swann, who would track vessels from many countries, including the Soviet Union, from land, ship and aircraft.
Research was a big part of his job — it was crucial to keep track of submarines and localize them so there was an awareness of any potential threat.
Canada is one of the best in the world for ASW operations, said Swann, who joined the navy as an oceanographic operator in 1988, after basic training in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. He was posted to his first integrated undersea surveillance system (IUSS) station, CFS Shelburne. Most of his time at sea was spent on a Canadian Pacific Frigate, including the HMCS Winnipeg.
As an oceanographic operator, Swann spent three years with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Nova Scotia. When pilots returned from a patrol and thought they had tracked a submarine, they would give Swann the tape for post-flight analysis. Based on the signature in the water, he could tell them if they had indeed tailed a submarine, rather than a merchant ship or even a whale.
His career saw him sail around the world to places such as Australia, the Persian Gulf, Japan, China, both coasts of North America, Puerto Rico, England, Spain, Italy and the Aleutian Islands, where the conditions were difficult, to say the least.
“When they talk waves and seas, that would probably be the worst besides South America — Cape Scott, coming down from the Aleutians back to B.C.,” Swann said.
He is from originally from Abbotsford, but was posted in locations across the country, including Quebec, where he met his wife, Danielle, and Nova Scotia, where his two sons were born.
Swann’s second role with the navy was as a boarding party member. In the 1990’s, international sanctions prevented Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government from exporting oil after the Gulf War, but that did not stop ships from continuously attempting to break those sanctions. He trained with Canadian Border Service agents on how to search ships, and with U.S. Navy Seals on how to take down an aggressive or fortified vessel.
Swann recalled boarding all manner of ships, as the party’s Alpha 2 (second in command), anything from a huge cargo ship to a little dhow. They would board three or four ships a day.
During this time period, Swann’s party boarded a ship heading towards Iranian waters, which refused to stop for boarding.
“If you’re caught in their waters, you would be considered a spy during that time frame,” he said. The ship was stopped and boarded after a confrontation.
“That was the only time I really felt I was in the military. When you’re carrying live ammunition and we do that, we train with it all the time, but this was — I was more concerned for my team,” Swann said.
He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his actions during that boarding and was able to be recognized, along with his wife, in Ottawa.
Canadian sailors train for many roles. Swann also trained and worked as a ship’s diver, ensuring the vessel’s hull and propeller were not damaged and, especially during the Cold War years, no mines had been planted. He also trained sailors for many years.
During the Cold War years, there was a lot of Soviet espionage, enough that while posted on the East Coast of Canada, Swann would receive debriefs from Canadian and U.S. intelligence about places to avoid.
“It wasn’t uncommon for us to go downtown and be told ‘don’t go to that pub,’ and in that pub there would be Russian sailors,” he said.
The Russian sailors were ostensibly working on ships such as a trawler, but Canadian and U.S. intelligence knew otherwise and operated stings in places like Newfoundland. The Russians were hoping to gain information from sailors who had a beer or two, Swann said.
“For the lack of a better term, they were spies,” he said. “We knew what they were doing.”
Swann is enjoying his retirement in French Creek, fly-fishing and volunteering with Danielle at the Legion and the senior’s centre. He said he hopes they can soon travel together and visit the places he saw during his time in the Navy.